City signs on with Cities United

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KPD units at the scene of the shooting death of Janaria Muhammad, 15, on Feb. 16.

The City of Knoxville and the nonprofit group Cities United officially became bedfellows Tuesday, but only time will tell what kind of a future their relationship will give birth to.

City Council unanimously approved a $75,000 contract with the organization to help combat an unprecedented surge in street violence over the past 15 months. 

The contract is less than a tenth of the $1 million designated for violence prevention by Mayor Indya Kincannon. How and when the remaining $900,000-plus will be spent is not only still very much in the air, it’s part of what Cities United has been hired to decide.

“This contract is a strategic planning step that will support local coaching and capacity building as we work to collaboratively identify evidence-based and community-informed strategies to address violent crime in Knoxville,” Kincannon said.  

The contract’s financial impact on the budget may be minimal, as $75,000 just isn’t very much money in the context of government spending. It’s potential impact on East Knoxville’s “Gun Zone” and other traditionally high-crime areas, however, is huge. 

The question is whether this latest investment will ultimately be remembered as coming just in time to make a difference or if it will prove to be too little, too late.

For the next 12-18 months, Cities United will consult and advise City officials on how best to utilize the community’s many resources. The organization also offers violence intervention training that has, in other cities, helped prevent violence from escalating in the midst of crises.

For well over a year now, Knoxville has been staggering under the weight of its most violent period in recent memory. There were 37 homicides in 2020, more than the previous high of 35 in 1998. 

Since Jan. 1 of this year, there have been 15 slayings in the city, all of them involving firearms. There have been an additional five homicides in the unincorporated areas of Knox County under the jurisdiction of the Sheriff’s Office, all of them also involving guns.

The most shocking series of incidents — and the catalyst for the Kincannon administration’s sudden emphasis on anti-violence initiatives — were the shooting deaths of four Austin-East Magnet High School students in just six weeks. 

 Justin Taylor, 15, was accidentally shot and killed by a friend Jan. 27. Stanley Freeman Jr., 16, was killed Feb. 12 as he was driving away from the Austin-East campus, and 15-year-old Janaria Muhammad was fatally shot outside her home on Feb. 16. Jamarion “Lil Dada” Gillette died early March 11 at a local hospital after he was brought in by a motorist who found him suffering from a gunshot wound on Cherokee Trail.

Two male juveniles have since been charged with first-degree murder for Freeman’s death and are waiting to learn if they will stand trial as adults. If so, they could spend the next 51 years of their lives behind bars. Police are still searching for the killers of Muhammad and Gillette.

 Mayor Kincannon has secured a $1 million emergency allocation to address the crisis and has said repeatedly that she wants Cities United to play a central role in the response. Since 2011, the Louisville, Ky.-based nonprofit group has been bringing together mayors from across the United States to collaborate on ways to reduce gun violence, especially when it involves young Black men and boys.

Tuesday’s vote in favor of the Cities United contract came with no dissent or debate; it was clear that all nine council members were enthusiastic supporters of the measure. Some said they were encouraged by the organization’s track record. This isn’t the first time, after all, that Knoxville and Cities United have worked together in the wake of tragedy. 

It’s also not the first time that local officials have vowed to do whatever it takes to bring street violence under control. Yet historically those promises, no matter how sincere, have never seemed to add up to much in the long run.

Children, usually from largely Black neighborhoods like those in East Knoxville or Western Heights in Northwest Knoxville, have been dying violently on the streets for generations without letup. If anything has changed recently, it’s that there seems to be a concentration of violence in the so-called “Gun Zone” (loosely put, a couple of square miles around the Walter P. Taylor Homes public housing project) instead of the bloodshed being split between it and the Lonsdale area.

It’s not been that long, after all, since Zaevion Dobson, a 15-old-year old Fulton High School football player, died while shielding a group of teenage girls from a random shooting in Lonsdale triggered by gang warfare in 2015. Not only was his heroism cited as an example by then-President Barack Obama, it also led to some of Knoxville’s earliest discussions with Cities United and the eventual creation of the highly successful Change Center. 

Dobson was one of 26 homicide victims in Knoxville that year. Statistically speaking, the bloodshed wasn’t markedly more or less in 2015 than it was in other years. In fact, 2016 brought a similar number of killings — 27 — and yet more dead children, both Black and white, with a 12-year-old boy killed in a drive-by at a birthday party in Mechanicsville and a 17-year-old boy fatally shot in the Western Heights public housing project.

Turn back the clock far enough and what becomes clear are the same bloody stories repeating themselves over and over again on the same blocks and street corners. In the 1990s incessant gang warfare, driven in part by the crack cocaine trade, claimed scores of lives and injured hundreds, many of them teenagers. Most infamous of all was the death of 5-year-old Brittany Daniels, who was slain during a drive-by shooting in Lonsdale in 1996.

While the murder rates in Knoxville have never approached the levels of, say, Chicago or even Nashville, they have remained steady, implacable…. perhaps even untouchable.

Breaking the cycles of violence — whatever they happen to be in a given community — is what Cities United claims to do by using tried-and-true techniques that have saved lives in cities across the country. 

Cities United’s team, photo courtesy of their Web site.

The message that City Council members were given Tuesday is that those strategies are what all of Knoxville needs, Black and white, from Walter P. Taylor Homes to Bearden.

Kurt Davis of West Knoxville, the one member of the public to speak on the contract, said there are many programs that have proven successful across the country that the City could emulate.

“Danger bleeds,” he said. “It’s a matter of time before this bleeds over to other parts of Knoxville if it’s not solved…. Racism, or the ignoring of it, is a pandemic. I have a niece at Bearden High School and she has indicated this is causing racist actions toward Black people and there is growing concern at her school.”

He continued: “Knoxville has done little to help the weakest links by not acting, and it will result in more deaths to come…. If we don’t act, what does it tell our kids? That black colored lives don’t matter? ….We have the chance to show Tennessee and America, as a representative of the white majority, what we can do and that we do care.”

Cities United’s executive director, Anthony Smith, spoke to City Council via Zoom and explained that the group’s past dealings with Knoxville have shown that excellent resources are already in place here.

“We know that you have a nice foundation of work and people doing good work,” Smith said. 

According to Smith, it will be Cities United’s job to discover “where the gaps are and how do we do the intervention work to make sure we have folks who can get to those young folks who are at risk at that moment.”

Council member Tommy Smith of the 1st District said he had been greatly impressed by the success of the Change Center, which grew out of some of Cities United’s prior interactions with the City government. “Results matter and staying power matters,” he said. 

Council member Seema Singh, who represents the 3rd District, said she hopes the contract is only the beginning of a much larger commitment to funding violence prevention programs. Singh also pointed out that President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan contains $5 billion in funding for such initiatives.

“I’m very excited about this program,” she said. “It’s a great start.”

J.J. Stambaugh can be reached at jjstambaugh@hardknoxwire.com. 

Published on April 7, 2021